What “being neighbourly” means to expats

What being neighbourly means to expats

You stay on your side, and I’ll stay on mine.

Every picture tells a story. I don’t know what the story behind this picture is, but I have a feeling it’s not a happy one.

My mediocre photography skills don’t capture the head-shaking pettiness on display here. This is a hedge dividing two houses. If you look closely, you’ll see that the homeowners on the right side of the photo have neatly pruned the half that sits on their property, but they’ve pointedly left the rest to sprout forth in all its untamed glory. The dividing line splits the hedge in two so precisely, I suspect a ruler was used.

This is a perfect example of what my mother calls “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” It could be a case of simple laziness, or it could be a full-blown feud rivalling that of the Hatfields and McCoys. Either way, it’s not particularly neighbourly.

As expats, our neighbours take on an importance that perhaps didn’t exist in our lives back home. Especially in the beginning, being far from family means that we’re often forced, à la Blanche DuBois, to rely on the kindness of strangers. Our neighbours might be the very first people we meet when we arrive, and good ones will make us feel welcome: explaining how things work, recommending doctors and dry cleaners, and generally sharing those snippets of inside information that make settling in a little easier. We turn to them in times of need, and are happy to help when they do the same.

My experiences with neighbours overseas have run the gamut. My first home in Singapore was a townhouse condo close to Orchard Road. Living there was the only time in my adult life that I’ve felt truly part of a neighbourhood community. It was the kind of place where the kids knocked on each other’s doors to come outside and play while the moms sat on the front steps and chatted. We had impromptu parties by the pool, babysat for each other, went shopping together, and shared countless evenings in each other’s company.

In contrast, both times I lived in France my neighbours were all but invisible. In Bordeaux I once knocked on a neighbour’s door to pick up a package that had been left there while I was out. The woman who answered was polite but efficient; she completed the transaction with a minimum of small talk, said her goodbyes, and gently shut the door. I stood outside on the step, package in hand, utterly deflated.

Two neighbourhoods. Two dramatically different vibes. One important element I’ve left out of the story is that the first neighbourhood was made up entirely of expats from Australia, Japan, Mexico, the US and the UK. The second one was French.

The fact is, cultures define the concept of neighbourliness in different ways. Life in the expatriate enclave was relentlessly social, and this was due in part to the inclusive nature of the expat community in general. But I think the bigger reason was the cultural makeup of the people involved. For the most part, my neighbours hailed from cultures where informality and openness are the norm. They had fairly fluid personal boundaries and placed a high value on overt friendliness. The French, however, are more reserved with strangers and casual acquaintances. They’re not impolite — their rules of etiquette are codified and deeply engrained in the French psyche — but to those of us with less formal leanings, they can come across as being cold and, at times, rude. That, to me, is the real “French Paradox.”

I felt quite helpless before the wall of politesse I encountered in France, and had no clue how to get around it. The idea of popping in to say hello was unthinkable — this was Bordeaux, after all: allegedly one of the least friendly places in all of France. (This was according to the Bordelais shopkeeper — obviously an outlier — who expounded at great length on the subject while carefully placing my canelés in a tidy white box and tying the bow with a flourish.) I had hoped the legitimate excuse afforded me by La Poste would be enough to break the ice. Not so.

The role good neighbours have played in my expat life makes me even more aware of what kind of neighbour I am now that I’m back home. I still don’t know many of the people who live on my street, but I do have a warm relationship with Bill and Mary, the elderly couple next door. Mary brings me treats from her garden every summer, and I’m happy to drive them to doctor’s appointments or pick up the special sausages they like when Chef Boyardee goes to the Polish market.

Sometimes Mary and I chat across the small hedge that runs between our houses. Standing about two feet tall, it’s more decorative than divisive, and Bill prunes it regularly — all of it. I’d say that’s mighty neighbourly. Don’t you agree?

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About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
This entry was posted in Culture Shock, France, Identity, Singapore and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to What “being neighbourly” means to expats

  1. Arwa says:

    A nice topic! When we relocated from India to the Netherlands, the move had me thinking on the same lines. In India, you have a pretty much “like-family” relationship with neighbours where out here it was a bit different – as I would come to know slowly. But fortunately, I have a good rapport with both my neighbours – in fact, I have learnt to make the “authentic” Dutch coffee from them, amongst many other things 🙂 But yes, this happened slowly over time. For me, it is simple – you win some, you lose some!

    • Maria says:

      Good things happen to those who wait! The expectation we have regarding the pace at which these things unfold is often part of the problem. In my part of the world we have the archetype of the neighbour standing on your front step with a smile and a casserole just as the empty moving van is driving away. (Although I think that might be a bit outdated — it’s certainly never happened to me!) Getting used to a slower or faster timeline is one of those adjustments we have to make as expats. I have to admit, I envy your neighbour situation. It’s comforting to have a connection to a friendly soul right next door.

  2. Yes the French do have a different way of thinking of neighbors. The fact that you live next to each other does not mean you should become acquaintances let alone friends.
    I think it goes back to the anglo-saxon sense of community which does not exist in the same way in France. A quick look at the fragmented French political landscape with its 17 political parties gives you an idea of divided the French society can be. Down at the individual level, the French build their communities around family members or old acquaintances. They will not be rude but an expat or newcomer in the community will always be kept at arms length, after all ‘on pas garde les cochons ensemble.’ (we didn’t keep the pigs together)

    • Maria says:

      I see similarities to many Asian cultures in this regard. For example, in North America the word “friendship” is casually applied to a wide range of relationships, whereas in many parts of Asia the norm is to have a few close friends who are chosen carefully and cultivated for a lifetime. “Neighbour” was just another label I had to redefine. When I moved from my expat condo in Singapore to one with a larger local population, I was utterly ignored by my Singaporean neighbours. (Of course, when the French ignored me, it was with such exquisite politeness that it was hard to take offence.)

      And John, I have to thank you for the awesome expression “on ne garde pas les cochons ensemble.” I’ll be looking for excuses to use it from now on!

  3. Pingback: Sunday Coffee Links | Expat Life Coach

  4. bookjunkie says:

    This is an interesting topic. I think the Singapore local population tends to be culturally very much on the extreme end of the shy scale. I am pretty shy and reserved myself. There are a couple of exceptions, but I think most people are reserved unless they get to know someone pretty well. But people do smile and wave when they see their neighbours even though they do not indulge in much conversation. I guess it’s because our houses are in such close proximity, there is not much privacy anyway.

    My friend who lived in a condo filled with expats had an experience similar to yours where she had play-dates for the kids on a daily basis etc and she enjoyed it tremendously. I guess it just depends on individual personalities as well.

    • Maria says:

      I agree that personality plays a huge role, although it’s sometimes hard to tease personality and cultural traits apart. I’m shy too, and I tend to rely on other people to make the first move. But the environment also matters. I knew our first home in Singapore would be perfect: it was small and intimate, which forced me to meet people. Our second home was in Maplewoods, on Bukit Timah Road. We chose it because it was close to the girls’ school on Toh Tuck, but I had serious misgivings right from the start because it’s so huge. We just didn’t have the daily interactions with people that we had in the other place. We lived on the top floor, and our elevator serviced only one other unit whose occupants we rarely saw — so much for hanging out with the neighbours!

  5. Really interesting subject. Here in Quebec I get a flavour of English and French culture and it’s amazing how things are often divided down those lines. We go jogging around a lake in summer. I noticed when we saw some folk out for a walk they did not make eye contact or say hello. This puzzled me. Those are the French, said my husband. The Anglos all said hi but generally the French Canadians do not give you a greeting. Culture is ever-fascinating. In England we had a lot of shy friends and my Canadian husband always used to say that once you got to know them – they were the best people. I agree.

  6. Maria says:

    I can’t even comment, because I have so little first-hand knowledge of French Canada. (Quite shameful, when you consider it’s only about 5 hours away by car — and part of my homeland as well.) I’m planning a trip to Montreal after Christmas, and I intend to take notes!

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